The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirteen
Wedge looked up as Kerensa returned. She had changed from her fatigues into a long green shift, and her hair hung loosely over her shoulder, its copper highlights accentuated by the fact that it was still damp from the quick shower she must have taken. Like her fatigues and her diplomatic garb, the dress was conservative and absolutely plain; and Wedge was impressed again by her ability to look stylish in clothes which would have made anyone else look drab.
"That feels so much better," she said, refilling his beaker from the jug in her hand. "The marma gets pretty unbearable some days. How are the others in your contingent surviving?"
She selected another liqueur from the box which they had opened after dinner, prompting Tutti's speedy return. Wedge had wondered if the tiny avian had stopped to appreciate the way the initial honeyed flavour gave way to a vaguely creamy, vaguely alcoholic, vaguely fruit-like, long-lasting after-taste. Judging by the way he had been knocking back the fragments of filling Kerensa had been feeding him, he doubted it. Fortunately, Tutti had disappeared when Kerensa went inside.
"They're coping," he replied. "They're used to extremes. Just over a year ago we were all freezing our ... we were all slowly turning blue on Hoth. Believe me this is a vast improvement."
Kerensa smiled inwardly at the way he had corrected himself. "Hoth. That was the base which the Empire destroyed, is that right?" She sat down on the turf in front of him.
"How many of the pilots here now were involved in that?"
"A few - Hobbie and Wes, that was the guy you saw yesterday."
"The cheeky one?"
Wedge nodded, grinning.
Kerensa sipped her drink thoughtfully. "You guys have had a rough time," she said softly. "Iicini'ia didn't officially throw its lot in with the Alliance until a few months before Endor, so we've been rather insulated from the worst of it."
"Didn't you suffer some depredations when you withdrew from the Empire?" asked Wedge, remembering what Admiral Ackbar had told them.
"Yes," she nodded. "It was mainly economic sanctions, but every now and again they'd send in a patrol to disrupt shipping, and we're pretty sure they hired pirates to raid our supply routes. Needless to say, it ruined the tourist trade, which used to be a big earner."
"Where's the Regional Governor?"
"On Hocqyellen, in the Circle. Fortunately he's basically a lazy slob, so we probably got off more lightly than intended. And we were too far from Imperial Centre to be made an example of. I mean, had you heard of Iicini'ia before you came here?"
"Er, I get your point." Wedge felt a trickle down beside his ear which he knew was sweat, and tried surreptitiously to wipe it away.
Kerensa smiled and stood up. "It'll be nice and cool amongst the trees, do you want a stroll?"
"I wouldn't mind actually," he replied with relief. "You should go into the restaurant business, that was a great meal."
"Well, mackshi would be pleased to hear that. She was very insistent I learned to feed myself properly when I decided to come here and work for I-M."
"My grandmother. Oh! That wicked old so-and-so!" She stopped so suddenly that Wedge almost bumped into her. "Look at that!" she glared up at him angrily. He was both impressed by the fire dancing in her eyes making them gleam like black coals, and perplexed as to why she seemed so upset with her grandmother. He studied the tree she indicated. The leathery bark was hanging in thick strips, and the red-gold resin was oozing out rather like blood from a wound. Surely her grandmother couldn't have inflicted that sort of damage? If she had, she was obviously a woman to stay well clear of.
"This has Chitza's stamp all over it. He's been using it as a scratching post."
"Um. I thought you said he was harmless," said Wedge, relieved that he wasn't going to have to face a blade-toting grandmother, but concerned lest this Chitza take a dislike to him. "Them's awfully big clawmarks."
"He'll have big hand marks when I find him," she replied grimly, "all over his big furry bottom." She tried smoothing the larger strips of bark into place. "Of course, he had to choose the one and only fa'ari tree. Now there probably won't be any fa'ari nuts to look forward to. Bother him!" She looked up at Wedge, suddenly apologetic. "Sorry. I'm not being a very good host am I, standing here muttering about trees. I'll come back later with some bandages."
"You're going to bandage a tree?"
"Trees feel pain you know, Wedge," she informed him. "Plus if they lose too much of their internal fluid they die, just like us if we lose too much blood." She gazed at him severely as if she was a teacher addressing a particularly difficult pupil.
"I guess I've never thought about it from that point of view," he said finally. He tried to fight it, but a grin forced its way over his lips.
"What's so funny?"
Wedge snorted, fought the impulse but failed miserably, and burst out laughing. "I'm sorry," he spluttered. "I had this crazy image of trees lining up for a turn in a bacta tank."
"You think I'm wacky, don't you?" her voice held a note of resignation, and she set out along the path again.
"No. No, I don't," he said, hurriedly catching up to walk beside her.
"Mildly eccentric?" He glanced down and saw the school mistress expression had given way to a rueful look.
"Interesting," he said conclusively, teasing a smile out of her.
The path they were following began to rise, and Wedge noticed with relief the moderating effect of the trees. Now that they had moved from the outskirts into the forest proper, a myriad leaf surfaces effectively filtered out the concentrated heat and humidity of the evening. From the top of the slope, Wedge saw a deep pool extending away in a U-shape. Parts of its surface glinted where the last few amber beams of the setting sun shone down on it, unhindered by forest cover, but the edges reflected the cool green colours of the trees.
"I guess I can live with that," she said, walking to the edge of the pool and dangling her fingers in the water.
"How long have you been a translator?" he asked, settling beside her.
"Not long. About a year and a half." She paused, tracing patterns amongst the leaves at the pool's edge, and chuckled. "I think your protocol droid was a bit upset that he wasn't wanted. It's the first time I've actually seen a droid look dejected before."
"Oh, See Threepio's an expert at that. I think he was programmed by someone with chronic neurosis and verbal diarrhoeia." He looked down at her, and took a deep breath. "Anyway, if I was a diplomat I'd definitely prefer having you as my translator."
"Yes, he is a little grating," she replied.
"I didn't actually mean it that way. I meant that you're much nicer to ..." An upheaval in the pond to his side and a loud grunt made him turn. "Um, Kerensa, I think you ought to know, there's something very large and knobbly staring at us from the water."
Kerensa's gaze travelled from his face to where he indicated, and her eyes lit up. "Tevvy!" she called. The bulbous eyes turned towards her, and the huge head floated as if disembodied over the surface. Gradually a thick neck emerged, and all of a sudden the creature reached the shallows and splashed out awkwardly, spraying them with water. Its four stumpy legs were armoured, as were its flanks, with layers of stiff membranes like small oval plates. It hauled its way over to Kerensa and squatted in front of her, head bowed so she could scratch between its horns.
"Cooler now?" she asked mischievously, seeing Wedge wipe a hand across his face.
"Yes, thank you," he replied. "What kind of an ... urh!"
A second armour-plated beast suddenly lurched out of the pond, drenching them again.
"This is Tavvy," Kerensa informed him, scratching the proffered head. "They're tevathors."
"Are there any more?" Wedge scanned the surface of the pond, drying himself with his shirt-sleeve.
"These are the only two I know of."
"Ah," he nodded. "In that case I think we can safely assume that this is the full complement."
The first tevathor sighed and settled down between them, contentedly clacking its bony jaws. The second squatted in front of it, bending down to gnaw noisily at something on its tail. It clacked its jaws in response, causing the first to begin clacking about something else. After a moment or so of alternate clacking, Kerensa glanced up at Wedge, unsuccessfully stifling a snort of laughter.
"I'm sorry. They're not usually this talkative."
Both tevathors clacked together.
Wedge shook his head resignedly. "I was trying to say that you're a very attractive girl, but these guys rather spoiled the moment."
"Thanks," she said colouring a little. Then she threw him a cheeky look. "You're not too bad yourself."
The tevathors clacked together loudly.
"There, you see. They agree with me."
"I'm overwhelmed," he smiled down at her, thinking how tempting it was being within distance of her lips ... but a raucous groan emanating from the tall bushes to their left caused him to look up. He stiffened as a massive hairy beast stumbled out unsteadily, its two huge paws raised above its face.
"Oh no!" came Kerensa's annoyed voice. "He's done it again!"
Wedge gazed from the animal to Kerensa, and then back again. She caught the perplexed look.
"This is Chitza, clawer of trees. He's been into the tura-tura drupes again, and as you can see he is totally blotto."
"Yes. The drupes don't fall, they ferment on the tree; and as yet he hasn't learned to leave them alone."
Chitza tottered towards them, and seemed about to walk straight over them when he tripped, lurched sideways into the pond and toppled over, producing an almighty splash and a wave of water.
"Can he swim?" asked Wedge, blinking to clear his vision.
"I don't know. How are your resuscitation skills?" she asked.
Chitza struggled to his feet, steadied himself and set out again, lifting one leg at a time very purposefully. He was doing quite well until he stumbled over a fallen branch and fell forwards into a bush festooned with orange flowers. He bounced off and landed with a thump and a squelch on his ample rump beside Kerensa, covering everyone with a cascade of spray and orange petals. There was a moment's silence while the air cleared, then the tevathors clacked together conspiratorially.
"Well if I wasn't cool before, I sure am now," Wedge said.
"We couldn't get much wetter, that's for sure," she laughed, pushing her fringe back out of her eyes. The clearing was filled with the rumbling echo of a peal of thunder.
"I, er, think you spoke too soon," he informed her. Another clap exploded directly above them, and large globules of rain began to fall, slowly and randomly at first, but gradually building in frequency until they were descending in sheets and bouncing off the ground. The tevathors grumbled and waddled back to the pool, skimming noiselessly away. Kerensa looked up laughingly at Wedge, and jumped to her feet pulling him up too.
"Come on - this is what saloni trees are for," she shouted above the rumbling thunder and the hissing of the rain. Wedge raced after her to shelter under a low squat tree with furling grey bark. "We used to make umbrellas out of these when we were kids," she indicated the plate-sized leaves, and leaned against the trunk, peering out at the torrent. Then she glanced up at Wedge, aware that he was looking at her, and smiled in response to the grin spreading over his face. Probably a soppy one, he thought, but the less dressed up she looks, the more desirable she becomes. He had begun to respond again to the force that was drawing him to her lips when something large, hairy and wet lurched between them, thumped into the tree-trunk, and slid moaning to the ground.
"Do you ever get the feeling fate's against you?" he asked ruefully.
"I have ever since Chitza arrived," she said emphatically. "Mercy, he's out for the count!" she had pulled open the eyelid on one of the two eyes on the back of the beast's head. "Give me a hand, and we'll roll him on his side in case he's sick or something."
"I can't believe I'm doing this," murmured Wedge as they manipulated Chitza into the recovery position. He lifted up one of the beast's massive paws. "Are you sure he's harmless?" he asked running a finger along the edge of one of the two hooked claws. "He could do some damage with these - look." He pressed the leathery tissue between the claws and they pinched together like pincers. "He can grip as well as rip."
She studied the paw thoughtfully and frowned. "Mmm, you're right. It is a bit strange isn't it?" She stood up and poked Chitza's back tentatively with her foot. "I don't think he'll move from there. I must find out what he is. He just appeared one day looking hungry, so I gave him some fruit." She shrugged.
"Do you have any other animals likely to pay a visit?" he teased. "Any ewoks, rancors or krayt dragons, maybe a few tame krakana that you keep in the pond?"
"There are a few others, yes, but none fitting those names. Not that I've heard of any of those before anyway." She peered out into the clearing. "It's stopped raining, so we can go back if you like and finish those yummy sweets. That's if Tutti hasn't already done it for us."
Wedge grinned, but as he strolled beside her back up the slope towards the forest path he thought about what she had just said. All those animals he mentioned belonged to the part of the galaxy with which he was familiar, but to her they were just strange names belonging to distant places. He glanced down at her again, admiring the hair which hung in burnished ringlets to just under her shoulder blades, and the delicate form of her body beneath her damp dress. If it was just physical attraction that he felt, he knew he wouldn't be this concerned. But he felt too comfortable in her company, too affected by her personality, and too interested in finding out more about her. Logically speaking it would be ill-advised to cultivate anything more than a friendship. Logically.
Only one of Iicini'ia's moons was up as Kerensa guided the old speeder across the rocky plateau towards the I-M base. Wedge had watched the smaller moon set an hour earlier, as he sat with Kerensa under the trellis finishing the last of the liqueurs, talking, laughing, and watching with amused fascination as she coaxed a burrowing kyekuri out from under some purple gourds and marched it down to the forest. It was late; it had been a long day, but Wedge felt enervated and happier than he had felt for ... He tried to remember when he had last felt like this, shook his head and gave up.
"Have you been into town yet?" she asked as they passed through the external security gate. The ingress door of the hangar hung half-open like a giant mouth in mid-yawn, and the dark yellow interior lighting spilled out on to the landing field before it.
"No, haven't really had time yet." He turned to her. "Are you working tomorrow?" he asked tentatively.
She nodded, pushing back the thrust control, and powering in the repulsors. "Only a half day though. I usually visit mackshi, but ... ," she let the vehicle settle on its skids, "I was thinking - it's been ages since I've been to the beach. You wouldn't fancy a bit of sea air I suppose?" She leapt down and set out towards the entrance, and Wedge followed suit.
"Actually," he said, "that sounds exactly like what I'd fancy."
"Well, I finish at 14.00, so just wait by my speeder like today if you want. And don't worry about bringing anything, I'll take care of the food. If you don't mind trusting my culinary tastes again, that is."
"I don't see that as a problem," he grinned, then he paused, uncertain as to what to do next. He should say goodbye and go to his quarters, but he really wanted to do something else first.
"Er, Kerensa," he began, and noticed her looking at something behind him. He turned.
"Ensign," the young security guard acknowledged her presence with a nod, and then looked up at Wedge. "May I have your ID please, sir?"
"Come on, Private, you don't need to see his ID," she said firmly in the schoolmistress voice. "This is Commander Antilles."
"This is Commander Antilles," repeated the guard. Then he saluted smartly. "Good evening, sir."
"Private," acknowledged Wedge, throwing Kerensa a quizzical look, but she smiled back and shrugged.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she said quietly, and turned to walk back to the SoroSuub.
"May I say, sir, that it's a great honour to have you people here. My brother, Teiri, fought at Endor, and he told me all about it. He said that it was you who destroyed the Death Star."
Wedge glanced from the young man's face to Kerensa's retreating figure. He wanted to correct the guard's simplistic version of the events at Endor, but he didn't want to miss out on a few last glimpses of Kerensa. She climbed aboard the speeder and waved, and he waved back. Then she turned the vehicle away, and soon both had faded into the dark terrain. Wedge turned to the guard.
"Thanks, Private. But tell your brother that it was General Calrissian's shot as much as mine that knocked it out. And neither of us could have done it without people like your brother there to back us up."
"Yes, sir." The guard's young face shone with unabashed pride. He turned briskly on his heel and continued his patrol circuit. Wedge stared wistfully out at the darkness, and then headed slowly and thoughtfully towards his quarters.
On her way down the old watercourse, Kerensa found certain events of the last two days running on constant replay through her mind: snatches of conversation, the unfamiliar thrill which ran through her when he looked at her with those brown eyes, and the serious expression which faded to boyishness when he smiled. Since yesterday, he had been rather a frequent visitor in her thoughts, and she found this disturbing. She knew she mustn't let herself become too fond of him, but somehow when she was with him she couldn't help but do anything else. The problem was being exacerbated by the distinct feeling she had that he was more than a little interested in her. Was she being a fool wanting to get to know him better? Would she be foolish not to? She sighed. She should go and talk to mackshi about it, but now having opted to spend this week's free time at the beach, she would have to wait until next week. It looked as though this was a problem she was going to have to solve for herself.
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